Athletic director Mark Coyle gave his assessment of the Gophers football season on the pre-game radio show ahead of the regular season finale in Wisconsin.
“There’s no question we missed an opportunity,” Coyle told reporter Justin Gaard.
The most reasonable and objective observers would come to the same conclusion.
The Gophers went 8-4 without beating a team that finished the season with a winning record. Keeping Paul Bunyan’s ax provided a euphoric finish, but given the roster’s experience and the mediocrity of the Big Ten West, Coyle’s assessment hit the mark.
So why did PJ Fleck get a $1 million raise last week?
Fear of falling behind rivals in the relentless arms race. This is standard operating procedure in college sports in 2022.
You might hate this explanation. You might think a raise is unnecessary and unjustified. But you shouldn’t be surprised, if you’ve been paying attention to the new world order that governs college athletics.
Have you ever watched a marathon race in person? Large groups of riders follow a leader who leads the peloton to a certain finish time. That’s the nature of college sports these days.
Every school is looking for a leader in all areas: salaries, facilities, staff, infrastructure, NIL offerings (name, image and likeness), student-athlete welfare, and more.
Fleck’s contract extension – a seven-year contract until 2029 – highlights the underlying pressure to keep pace with his rivals.
Fleck earned $5 million last season, which ranks him ninth among Big Ten coaches in annual salary, according to USA Today.
Newly hired coaches in Wisconsin (Luke Fickell) and Nebraska (Matt Rhule) received contracts with salaries ranging from $7.8 million to $9 million. Both of these numbers are one level higher than Fleck’s number 2022.
No Power Five program — especially those in the mega-rich Big Ten and SEC conferences — wants to lag significantly behind its rivals in every area. It’s a bad deal.
It’s easy to say “no, not us, not this time”, but it’s a desert island to plant a flag.
Again, this new reality might make you uncomfortable, but that’s how the game plays now.
If assessed solely in a vacuum, Fleck’s increase creates poor optics based solely on this season’s results. But that misses the point. The arms race does not operate in a vacuum.
Fleck has raised the standards and expectations of the program to such a level that people are disappointed with an 8-4 result. This is progress, not a negative thing.
Fans are rightly frustrated that Fleck’s side have squandered multiple chances to win the Western Division since 2019, when they were also there for the taking. His offensive philosophy must absolutely evolve before the program can rise beyond this level.
However, two facts may be true: Fleck’s comment after Wisconsin’s victory over people who wanted him fired was an unnecessary overreaction to criticism of him, and a failure to continually invest in Fleck’s program is a recipe for disaster.
Fleck’s new contract essentially amounts to a one-year extension of his previous contract, a strategic move by Coyle as it resets Fleck’s buyout clock which offers the school some protection.
The deal also provides an additional $1 million to Fleck’s coaching staff payroll – further acknowledgment that they were losing ground to their rivals.
No one should be struck by the shock of stickers on coaches’ contracts anymore. College sports are barely recognizable from 10 years ago. Revenue from TV pacts has created a titanic enterprise so full of money and minimal constraints that it feels like a weekend in Vegas.
There are projections that the new Big Ten media rights deals will funnel up to $100 million to each school each year. Let’s repeat that: $100 million, per school, each year.
Football drives this locomotive on the run. TV deals worth billions, conference reshuffles, expanded playoffs that will pump even more money into the coffers – it’s all stemming from the popularity of football.
For years, the Gophers have lagged the pack in their commitment to high-level football. They’ve closed that gap but can’t afford a break as their rivals continue to feed the footballing beast.
This is the basis of the relaunch of Fleck. Understanding this requires a perspective beyond this single season.
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